Last week we looked around the league to find some story-lines that will make MLS more interesting than ever, maybe. Now we’ll take a look at some of the things that will follow Atlanta United as the season moves along in 2018. The Five Stripes are coming off of a playoff appearance and a successful inaugural season in 2017 both on the field and in the stands.
To review, the 2017 season was pretty outstanding and featured some ups and downs, like: Atlanta United showing that the city is not a bad sports town, building an identity and team cohesion in the first season, depth...issues, and taking a risk on expensive young South Americans led by a foreign coach.
With 2017 behind us, there is one thing that should be recognized. Every story line is not created the same and some are not worth your time. Here is a list of things we are not allowed to talk about:
(Graphics credit: Joe Patrick)
Those are bad takes. Most takes are bad, but these are especially bad. The free space can and will be expanded to include - the “language barrier” on the team, replying to Sam about not being able to take him seriously, international slots, any focus on the size of crowds as if it is a novelty and not something that has been happening since last March, and the attractiveness of the away kit (All of the things I talk about here will eventually be squares, so just give me a $750 scarf, I have a Bingo!).
That said, the season will be truly fascinating for Atlanta United. The team will look to feature 18 year-old Ezequiel Barco, replicate it’s exceptional success from 2017, not sign a no. 6 after selling Carlos Carmona, find playing time for youngsters, and possibly say goodbye to Miguel Almiron.
Not so much #BarcoWatch, but time for #WatchBarco
Ezequiel Barco broke the transfer fee for a player coming to MLS. Stop me if you’ve heard this before - young players and hot shot wingers don’t always pan out and are a gamble. That said Atlanta United has been 3 for 3 in signing Designated Players. That isn’t an accident, the team has terrific scouting and the South American players it has brought in all performed better than could have been expected.
The difference with Barco is that he will be a much greater test for the team’s scouting abilities and the risk with him is obviously greater than with Yamil Asad who was on loan, for example. So far in pre-season he looks like he needs a bit more time to settle into his role and develop timing and chemistry with his new teammates. After just two games, it is hard to make a judgement about any player, so it will be interesting to watch how Barco settles into MLS and grows, hopefully, as a player as the year goes on.
At the risk of prompting an analytics rant, some of the stats for Atlanta United didn’t quite line up with the results. In the end, it might not be that important because, well - the results were pretty impressive and Atlanta ended up the 4th best team in MLS in 2017. A deeper dive might show why the team could have less success in 2018 than last year.
Taking a look at expected goals from American Soccer Analysis, Atlanta United should have scored just 48.32 goals rather than the 69 that the team netted last year. For expected goals allowed, the team let in 37 goals, but the website’s model expected that they should have allowed 44.59. Those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, and the huge difference between goals scored and xG might illustrate that the model isn’t great at predicting or explaining how the team will preform.
Not only do the statistics tell a different story than the results for the team, but for individual players there is a strong divergence between what is modeled and reality. First and foremost, Josef Martinez score a torrid 19 goals in 20 games last year. It doesn’t seem like he should be able to sustain that pace again, but then again if he’s healthy for the full year he could match that goal total and then some. Another player who might have over-performed his effort statistically was Tito Villalba. The winger, who filled in at striker also, had 13 goals and 9 assists according to ASA, but only should have scored 8.95 goals and pulled in 5.76 assists.
Statistically speaking, Atlanta United could be due for a correction. Then again the team has shown that it can prove just about everyone and everything that doubts it wrong, so perhaps next it will make soccer analytics look like a glorified game of soduku.
No new no. 6
If you haven’t noticed, Atlanta United sold Carlos Carmona and did not replace him (as I write this I’m sure Darren Eales is getting on a jet to South America or Europe and is getting ready to send a cryptic Tweet about someone who Joe scouted back in January). This basically flies in the face of my assumption that when the rumors of Carmona leaving started swirling that the team immediately began scouting and preparing to sign a new destroyer to lock-down the midfield. Either this didn’t happen or something fell through. In any case, there have been no - and I mean no - rumors about a new central defensive midfielder joining the team.
Either this will be a problem and teams will tear past some combination of Darlington Nagbe + Chris McCann/Jeff Larentowicz/Chris Goslin/Kevin Kratz (maybe), or this concern is misplaced and whoever is already on the team that wins the starting job at CDM will work out just fine - making this take worth only a space on a future Bingo board from a snarky blog about soccer.
On the other hand, none of those options are great - McCann seems lost in central midfield at times, Larentowicz is more of a metronome than a player who can get stuck in or is really quick enough to shield the backline. Chris Goslin is a teenager and he might not physically match up against some of the players who are longer in the tooth than him, and Kevin Kratz would be taking on the no. 6 role as a makeshift player at best.
On the other hand, maybe Tata is going to set up a three man backline and help take some of the defensive burden off of whoever ends up playing in front of his center backs with his formation. Whatever happens, it is clear that Carlos Carmona, who never got headlines or a lot of attention, was really important for Atlanta United last year, and not replacing him could derail Atlanta’s season.
Playing time for the yoots
Get my BINGO square ready - this is the year we see Andrew Carleton. He’s looked great in pre-season but Tata should be looking to give him some minutes in the regular season. Carleton has played across the attacking positions in midfield and could feature in any role on the pitch. So far, Martino has played him on the left wing choosing to give Julian Gressel more time to settle into preseason on the right while Tito Villalba recovers from his injury. It is an interesting case with Carleton, he’s arguably the most popular player on the team with fans and the one they would be most excited to see, yet he’s still got to prove that he can start as a professional in MLS.
In addition to Carleton, Chris Goslin seems set to get a lot of time with ATLUTD 2. It isn’t inconceivable that Tata could start him at the no. 6 role if things go very badly with Chris McCann and Jeff Larentowicz or whoever else starts in central defensive midfield to start the year. That said, he will get valuable professional minutes with the Golden Spikes in Gwinnette and find himself coming off the bench for a game or two with the first squad.
Aside from those two, it seems clear that Brandon Vazquez has a role on the team either as an early sub or spot starter on the left wing. One point of concern for the team though has to be the development of Miles Robinson. The match against the Charleston Battery in the US Open Cub was a real low point and it doesn’t seem like he’s taken a step forward.
Miguel Almiron could be moving on
It is widely expected that Miguel Almiron will leave the team for a side in Europe in the summer. Miggy has shown that he’s one of the best players in MLS and he could very well end up having the biggest transfer fee paid for a player in the league. Where he may go, if he actually leave, and what the transfer fee is will go a long way in proving the concept that Atlanta United has based its player acquisition strategy on.
While that might seem like a fairly obvious thing to watch, the real drama will play out when the team looks to replace him. It appears that the team has an idea for who will fill his role with Lucas Rodriguez, the player Atlanta paid $1.7 million to obtain the rights to transfer in the future. Whether or not they pursue that option is yet to be seen, but replacing Miguel Almiron will be a consequential decision for the team and would be an example of the team re-doubling down on their high risk roster building plan.
All told it should be an interesting year for the Five Stripes. Let us know in comments what narratives about the team you’re most looking forward to following.